Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Road blocks for city businesses

More competitive off-street parking could help town centre retailers
More competitive off-street parking could help town centre retailers

Urban centres are losing business as transport policies are inconsistent with urban regeneration.

The optimum arrangements should balance the need for better public transport services and the provision at competitive prices of off-street parking space for car users.

The key to a better answer for urban renewal is to use the main roads for traffic movement and not for parking.

Businesses in congested urban centres are losing market share partly because more and more customers can use a privately provided car park when shopping and partly because access to urban centres is becoming less convenient than access to suburban shopping centres. Suburban centres offer easier car parking and official policies are deterring car usage in town centres.

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) has recently set out what it would wish to happen in '50 solutions for reinvented retail in tomorrow's town centres'. NIIRTA argues town centres should be supported by official policies that increase the use of town centre shops.

Official policy is that, to alleviate congestion, more people should be encouraged to use public transport. That is unexceptional. However, to back up this policy, steps are taken to reduce the amount of urban parking space and planning policy leans against any applications to build car parks. As a result, fewer available private sector car parks will become more expensive

Into this argument, the spurious allegation is added that car parking in suburban stores is free and that this further distorts the customer incentives. Suburban retailers, through their business rates bill, are paying more because the suburban store with parking space will attract a higher rateable valuation. NIIRTA argues that retail planning policy is in desperate need of modernisation. That claim would attract support but rather less so if, as suggested, planning policy should then give extra protection to town and city centres with a firm moratorium on any out of town superstores.

The suggestion by NIIRTA that Northern Ireland should adopt the arrangements to create Business Improvement Districts is commendable. The BID concept is likely to be more persuasive than a suggested 5% reduction in VAT for Northern Ireland or a proposal to initiate 10 local Enterprise Zones.

As a reshaped policy framework, NIIRTA might consider suggesting that:

  • Car parking on all radial urban routes should be prohibited
  • Bus routes and car movements should be made more attractive with freer flow on radial routes
  • Planning policies should permit investment in off-street parking developments
  • Charging for off-street parking should be set by competition between providers.

With a clearer balance of public transport and car usage policies, the balance between city centre and suburban locations would evolve more naturally. The NIIRTA proposal for a 10-year freeze on car parking charges (presumably in town centres) and an extension of car parking charges to out of town superstores would be very unpopular.

As an aspect of urban policies, NIIRTA wants to end Translink's monopoly on public bus services.

Privatisation 'should not be ruled out,' it says.

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